Actor and advocate Kal Penn had starred in Hollywood films and popular television shows, but he was nervous when he began his job in the White House’s Office of Public Engagement.
His first day involved researching whether one agency out of 26 would be part of an executive order President Barack Obama would be issuing. During an hour-long conference call to discuss the matter, Penn dutifully took notes and awaited the decision. By the end, there was a long pause before an official asked, “So what’s the decision? Who’s on from the White House?”
Realizing the official was waiting on him to answer, he said the agency should not join the others. After the call, he ran through the West Wing of the White House to his boss’ office and, out of breath, informed her of the decision.
“Good, that’s why we hired you,” she said. “But next time, it’s OK to just send an email.”
The experience showed Penn his anxieties were unfounded because he possessed the benefits of having private-sector expertise, which proved useful when seguing into public service. His morning lecture, delivered Wednesday in the Amphitheater, focused on his dual roles as an actor and public servant as well on the intersection of law, art and policy.
While political representation is common among business and social sciences, the arts are sometimes left out, Penn said, and that first day reminded him of the reason he entered public service in the first place. He currently serves as a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
Penn’s talk was centered on the role of arts in society and, specifically, the role of government in the arts. He said his work in art and policy could be summarized in three “buckets”: arts education, cultural diplomacy and creative economy.
“I do believe it is role of government to support the arts, and I would liken it to the government supporting an educated populace,” he said.
Penn was born and raised in New Jersey and is a first-generation American citizen of Indian immigrant parents. He graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2000 with a double major in film and sociology. Nonetheless, he faced discrimination and stereotyping with roles almost immediately once he moved to Los Angeles.
His very first audition: He arrived and was asked to wear a turban.
For his role in “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder,” his agent had to convince him to take the role of Taj Mahal Badalandabad despite his misgivings. At the final callback audition, Penn’s competitor was wearing brownface.
“At that moment, I realized, ‘OK, I’m getting this part,’ ” he said.
Despite his initial reservations, he described his experience on the film as “fantastic.”
Situations like those are common for a person of color navigating Hollywood, he said. They led to a big awakening for Penn. Life in Los Angeles taught him how media and art socializes people, informs their political beliefs and creates a cultural narrative.
Penn said it’s no secret Hollywood has a diversity problem in casting and with characters. Such a lack of roles for people of color, he said, points to the sociological deficiencies of the film and television industry.
“It’s not a real accurate representation of America’s demographics,” he said.
These issues of age, race and gender depiction in entertainment are important because, by the time students graduate high school, they will have spent more time in front of the television than in the classroom, Penn said.
Being left out of the popular cultural landscape or reduced to stereotypes has a distinct impact, from school bullying to voting habits.
Such narrow-minded practices are common because commercial media are businesses and, by their nature, focused on profits at their core, Penn said. The common thinking regarding success in the industry is to look at other successes as litmus tests and mimic them with little variance.
Penn said artists are uniquely suited to bringing attention to issues of importance. He cited George Clooney’s work in Sudan, Angelina Jolie’s role with the United Nations, and Lena Dunham’s support of Planned Parenthood as a few examples.
In some cases, artists will stump for politicians up for election, like will.i.am did for Obama in 2008, like Chuck Norris has done for former Gov. Mike Huckabee, and “Donald Trump has done on behalf of Donald Trump.”
Bringing the lecture back to his three critical points of work for arts advocacy, Penn first discussed arts education and its signature program Turnaround Arts.
“The underlying theme is that when students have access to holistic learning that includes the arts, they will pay attention and attend school,” Penn said.
Penn admitted he was “terrible at math and science” in high school. It was important for him and others to bring applicability back to these topics, especially because their target schools were mostly in impoverished areas. They accomplished this by giving the students practical problems.
One example, Penn said, was to ask them to go home and find the surface area of their bedroom. Because many lived in homes without private bedrooms or shared space with others, the information they were taught — by both art and geometry teachers — was how to make better use of their space.
After three years in the 49 schools, the initiative saw literacy scores improve, on average, by 13 percent and math by 23 percent. More importantly, suspensions dropped as much as 85 percent.
“It was because kids finally wanted to be in school. The context made sense, and parents were more involved,” he said.
The second and third points, cultural diplomacy and creative economy, are intertwined, he said.
On one side, the New York Philharmonic was sent to Pyongyang, North Korea, to perform during the Bush administration, opening up avenues of cultural fluency between the small and isolated dictatorship and the United States.
“Programs like that where it would be unheard of for direct diplomacy between government officials, but the Philharmonic was able to enter and play in the middle of [North Korea’s capital],” he said.
On the other side, artists coming internationally to perform in the U.S. provide an economic boon to communities from the ticket sales, travel expenses and hotel and dinner reservations. However, when he began his job at the White House, this was in desperate need of fixing on two fronts.
First, artists faced challenges bringing their instruments on airplanes as carry-on luggage. In too many cases, Penn said instruments would be lost or broken and force the cancellation of artists’ performances, with the aforementioned economic consequences.
Second, the process for obtaining artists’ visas was broken. They had to prove they were internationally recognized, but if their work wasn’t accessible through a Google search, bureaucrats would deny visas. This led to many arbitrary denials of world-class artists who simply might not have a social media presence.
“The government was declining so many visas from so many countries, patterns started to develop, and countries like Brazil began to automatically deny [visas to U.S. artisits] who wanted to play shows there because we had systematically declined so many of theirs,” Penn said.
To fix it, they instituted new rules for visa agents regarding research on various artists as well as created a special hotline for those who felt they had been unduly denied a visa.
“How art impacts politics or vice versa is, for me, very blurry. It isn’t a one-way conversation,” he said in conclusion. “But it’s a field that I think is gaining more and more credence as communities are realizing the positive impact it can have on everything from economics to education to entertainment. And I’m very excited at what the next 10 to 20 years can bring in terms of changes.”
A Q-and-A transcript is not available for this lecture.